By the Numbers – How 100 school systems are adapting (and not adapting) to COVID: As some districts use test to stay to avoid quarantines, majority do not require testing
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This is the latest in a series of weekly analyzes of COVID-19 policies in 100 large, high-performance school systems, produced by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell. You can see the full archive here.
AAs all of our country’s schools have reopened for the new year, and many communities continue to face an increase in infections, one of the best defenses against school disruptions may also be one of the least controversial: COVID testing.
Testing can complement masking, immunization requirements, and proactive communication with parents, and it can help schools reduce infection rates while minimizing quarantines.
But our review of 100 large urban school systems suggests that many districts do not consistently take advantage of this essential tool.
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About half of the districts in our review require regular testing or rely on optional testing to identify new cases, with 37 requiring testing for staff and 14 for students.
Eight districts require staff to undergo testing, usually once a week, even if they are vaccinated. Twenty-nine require testing for some staff, such as those who are not vaccinated. Another 29 districts offer optional tests for staff.
While student testing mandates in New York and Los Angeles made headlines when classes resumed, such requirements remain rare in the rest of the country.
Four districts in our review, including LA Unified, require all students to undergo regular COVID testing. Ten districts require some to undergo preventive testing, such as unvaccinated children or playing sports. DC public schools randomly test at least 10 percent of students each week, targeting unvaccinated children.
Test-to-stay is a new tool aimed at shortening the quarantine time
Testing can help administrators detect COVID infections before they spread to schools, while limiting the number of students who need to be quarantined. Every district we track has now clarified its quarantine policy, and a growing number are offering exemptions to students who take other precautions to protect themselves against the spread of the virus.
Of the 100 districts we examine, 86 have exempted vaccinated students from quarantine, with 69 specifying that the exemption applies if they do not show symptoms. Other exemptions include students who have recently recovered from COVID (37) and exposed students wearing masks (29).
Districts are increasingly turning to testing to limit quarantines. Just over half of the districts in our review (53) allow students who test negative for the virus to shorten or avoid isolation.
A few districts (8), in an effort to get more students to learn in person, are changing their approach to quarantine by using a test program to stay. These policies allow students who may have been exposed to the virus to continue to learn in person as long as they take daily COVID-19 tests.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to approve the test’s approach to stay and continue to recommend quarantine for up to 14 days for some students. The federal public health agency told the New York Times it is not recommending the test to stay but is working with local courts to collect more information on the strategy and its execution.
A handful of states, including Illinois, Kansas, California and Massachusetts, now have test protocols to stay or similar rules that allow schools to use the tests to relax quarantine requirements. Seven of the eight districts with test-to-stay policies are located in those states. Public Schools in Portland, Maine is the only district in our exam to administer a test program for staying without state guidance.
In other cases, state policies may prevent districts from adding nuance to their quarantine policies. New Hampshire is asking students or staff in quarantine to stay home for 14 days after their last exposure to an infected person, watch for symptoms and get tested. A negative test does not reduce the time that a student is quarantined.
Testing can be a particularly valuable tool in states that limit other health precautions, such as Florida and Texas, whose governors have banned mask warrants, or Montana, which has legislation banning discrimination against women. individuals based on their COVID-19 vaccination status.
More districts report immunization requirements, but lack clarity on application
In the wake of the Biden administration’s sweeping and recent mandates for federal workers and businesses, a few other districts are following suit, 40 in our review now requiring staff vaccination. Of these, 14 require all staff to be vaccinated without an alternative test. This is double the number of districts with immunization mandates a month earlier, but it is far surpassed by the growing number that allows staff to withdraw through regular testing.
ISD San Antonio became the first district in Texas to require staff vaccination, a move that violates the governor’s order and has sparked a legal battle with the state.
Meanwhile, 26 districts now require staff to be vaccinated or participate in weekly tests. The Philadelphia School District requires unvaccinated staff to get tested twice a week.
LA Unified and the Oakland Unified School District remain the ones requiring vaccinations for all eligible students. Another California district, San Diego Unified, recently approved a requirement for students over 16. Eight districts require student athletes to be vaccinated.
From January, all eligible K-12 students in California will be needed to be vaccinated. Gov. Gavin Newsom released the first statewide national mandate on Friday.
State and federal government needed to help districts reap the benefits of testing
District leaders face the essential job of protecting the health of students, keeping them learning in classrooms whenever possible, and helping them recover from the academic and emotional toll of the pandemic. They cannot afford to waste precious time and attention fighting government officials or teachers’ unions over health precautions. Students also cannot afford to see this school year interrupted by excessive quarantines.
Testing can be a valuable tool in detecting outbreaks early in schools. It can work in concert with masking, immunization and quarantines – or provide essential protections in districts where political barriers block these crucial health precautions. And research suggests it may provide a safe and effective way to reduce downtime caused by quarantines while protecting against infections in schools.
State and federal leaders should promulgate guidelines that help districts make the most of this essential tool. State education and health offices should come together to provide funding, policy guidance and coordination so that districts can perform reliable large-scale testing.
Locally, health authorities can pool resources and share protocols. And they should help districts find creative ways to overcome one of the biggest logistical hurdles to robust COVID testing programs: understaffing. As a district official in Texas told The Times, “I need an army.” This army could include volunteer parents, school system workers, community organization workers, or local health agency staff.
There is still a lot we don’t know about the barriers that prevent schools from implementing effective COVID testing programs. Until more districts start adopting testing programs and talking openly about operational barriers, it may not be clear exactly what states, health agencies, and community volunteers can do to help. .
Bree Dusseault is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, supporting her analysis of the district and charter responses to COVID-19. Previously, she was Executive Director of Green Dot Public Schools in Washington, Executive Director of pK-12 Schools for Seattle Public Schools, Researcher at CRPE, and Principal and Teacher. Christine Pitts is a resident policy researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
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